By Natalie Augustin
Two years ago, I saw a travel documentary on the Sultanate of Oman. The details are pretty hazy now, but at the time, it must have hit home, because Oman immediately made its way onto my must-travel list.
Though I had visited the Arabian Gulf before, Oman seemed captivatingly different, for the simple reason that it was a lot more ‘authentic’ than its other Arabian counterparts. Despite the country’s economic progress, the country’s outward appearance has remained relatively untouched. A far cry from the man-made, concrete and glass structures that have come to characterise the UAE, Qatar, and Bahrain, Oman seems stuck in time…in a good way!
This is the Arabia I had envisioned as a child, with its wind swept desert dunes and roaming camels, thick palmed oases and refreshing emerald-green water wadis, old mud-coloured towns that seem to drift above the fringes of seas of date palms. The smell of spices and frankincense that hung in the air was intoxicating, as were the fragranced fields of desert rose that ran alongside orchards of crimson pomegranates.
This was the Oman I had imagined, and the Oman that I was fortunate enough to experience – a ruggedly beautiful country that is capturing the imagination and heart of the travel world.
Before arriving to Oman, I thought that 10 days in a country made up of 82% desert and 15% mountains would be a tad…boring. I mean, how much dessert does one really need to see for 10 days?!
I can safely say that I was completely wrong. Not only did Oman serve up some incredible landscapes, architecture, and sights, it was also one of the most pleasant, hospitable experiences I’ve ever had. I can’t wait to be back for more.
My journey began in the capital city of Muscat. Although it was still spring, the temperature on any given day ranges from mid-30s to early 40s. And so, I spent my first two days relaxing and getting acclimatized to the scorching Middle Eastern sun.
Early on day three, I met my guide – Haitham – a cheerful and good-natured Omani dressed in a dazzingly crisp white thobe. He would spend the next four days with us as our navigator and personal guide.
After the customary greetings were exchanged, my family and I piled into a large white off-road vehicle, and set off on our own Arabian adventure.
(A word of advice for those looking to travel in Oman – book an SUV! Because of its rugged landscape, most places of interest in the country are only accessible by 4x4s)
Our first stop was Jabal al Akhdar. Once accessible only by the military and villagers, Jabla al Akhdar, aka the Green Mountain, is now open to visitors, most of whom excitedly whizz their way up to the top as fast as their 4x4s can take them.
But besides the stunning view, Jabal Al Akhdar also offers up an olfactory treat. Its cool, temperate climate has made it a breeding ground for fields of pomegranates, apricots and pink desert roses.
Even with your eyes closed, it’s easy to tell when you’ve reached the rose gardens. Each year, these fragrant blossoms are are harvested and distilled using age-old techniques and bottled into the famed Omani smoked rose water. The final product is a brown liquid with a distinctly smoky scent and a rich – but not cloying – rosiness.
We spent the night in a hotel overlooking the terraced slopes of Jabal al Akhbar, reveling in the cool mountain air. The next day, it was back down the mountain for us, as we headed to the ancient town of Nizwa.
This old but important town, famed for its rich heritage, customs and traditions, was once the country’s capital – a centre of trade, education and religion. Today, it remains a remarkably well-balanced city – still moderately conservative and traditional, but lacking none of the modern day amenities.
The main purpose of my trip to Nizwa was to visit the old souq (market), and the ancient Nizwa fort. Of the two, I was most excited about the old souq.
I entered the souq through elaborately an carved wooden door, and was greeted by a narrow corridor lined high sacks of spices, nuts, flowers, and dried fruit. I had come to the souq with a long shopping list I was determined work through. Smoked rose water, sandalwood, frankincense, mixed oils, spices and dates; you name it, it was on my list! Luckily for me, the old market was a one stop shop, complete with with traditionally dressed merchants ready to bargain..
In the time it took for me to complete my list – plus a few extras – Nizwa had gone from balmy to blistering. Luckily, our next stop – Nizwa’s Round Tower fort – provided a cool sanctuary from the heat. An ancient fort and castle, the Nizwa Tower is a popular museum full on artefacts and exhibits from Oman’s history.
As much as I enjoyed our excursion, I was thankful to be back in our cool, air-conditioned SUV.
It was time to return to Muscat, but this time, via the scenic coastal route.
I welcomed the breeziness of the pristine coastline and could not resist the opportunity to visit a few of Oman’s wadis along the way. A wadi is what the Caribbean calls a gully or ravine. In the past, people would live in the wadi valleys because of the easy access to running water.
Now days, wadis have a much more recreational role in Omani society. Locals visit them on family weekend retreats, especially during the hot months for a refreshing respite from the heat. As a traveller though, I found the virgin coastline, with its secluded white sand beaches, more appealing than the wadis…and for good reason! The waters surrounding Oman and its coastline are legendary; so much so, that it’s said that the fabled adventurer Sinbad was Omani.
Natural beauty aside, what stands out most from my first few days in Oman are the encounters with the people. Said to be the friendliest and warmest of all the Middle East, Omanis are hospitable to a fault. There is a natural tribal brotherhood amongst these once Bedouin people only adds to their openness and kindness towards visitors.
From its warm people, to its cool mountains, to its jaggered coastline, lush wadis, and seductive scents, Oman is the rugged, natural escape your travel diary is missing. So pack up, book a flight, and start exploring!